Stephen Strange — better known as Doctor Strange, who hits theaters Friday in the form of Benedict Cumberbatch — may be a superhero who travels betwixt realities, but he's also technically a Philadelphian. The good doctor was born in our city when his parents were here on vacation. Just one of those spur-of-the-moment jaunts from Nebraska to Philly in the final trimester. As one does.
(Strange isn't the only Marvel hero with a Philly connection. In fact, the cradle of liberty seems to be a hub for the creepy and supernatural. Flash Thompson, former high school bully to Peter Parker and current host to the alien symbiote Venom, lived here a couple of years back. After a brief stint and trial in outer space, Thompson is back in Philadelphia. Then there's Jack Russell, Werewolf by Night, whose mournful howls can still be heard from the warehouse where he shackles himself on nights when the moon is full. That's probably Fishtown, if we had to guess. )
Marvel’s Sorcerer Supreme first appeared in 1963’s Strange Tales #110 in a five-page story devised by artist Steve Ditko and writer Stan Lee, the same team that had introduced Spider-Man the previous summer. Initial memos suggest Lee wasn’t particularly enthused about the short but thought Ditko’s concept had legs for future explorations into realms of “black magic.”
Thus, Stephen Vincent Strange was born in Philadelphia to vacationing parents Eugene and Beverly and raised on their Nebraska farm. He later studied in New York, where he quickly advanced in skill and stature as a world-renowned neurosurgeon. He reveled in the kind of celebrity and arrogance only doctors in the hallowed halls of the Shondaverse — the funny books of the 1960s — tend to enjoy.
After a horrific car accident, Strange loses the steadiness in his hands. Despite numerous surgical attempts to undo the damage, he finds himself unable to continue his work. Unwilling to surrender his lifestyle, this practiced nonbeliever turns to alternative medicine and a desperate, bank-draining pilgrimage to the Himalayas. There, he meets and trains under the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton in the film) and soon turns his scalpel to the fabric of reality. Imbued with insight and powers from such talismans as the Eye of Agamotto, Strange assumes the lofty role of Earth’s defender and Sorcerer Supreme.
The combination of Lee’s spaghetti-to-the-wall, Yogi Berra approach to alliterative incantations and Ditko’s trippy, otherworldly aesthetic was potent. Strange bellowed for the aid of “the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth” and a hungry readership heeded and grew. As the times were indeed a-changin’, this goateed Bert Convy in crushed velvet and leopard print, cursed with a House, M.D. temperament, Chinese manservant Wong by his side, became a counter-culture figure. Straight-laced readers even wrote in asking whether the merry Marvel bullpen had gotten into 'shrooms.
The cinematic outing charts the doctor’s defining journey from prince of the operating theater to transatlantic transcendentalist. At heart, it’s that familiar story: “Physician, heal thyself.” But it also represents the 14th feature-length installment in the consistently popular Marvel Cinematic Universe, and its most ambitious gamble into lesser-known properties since 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy. As Marvel Studios ventures deeper into comics’ rich cosmic catalog, will audiences embrace the magic carpet ride? Assuredly, Philly will turn out to rally behind one of its own.